Co.Lab and its startups grow through conversations
According to Mike Bradshaw, Co.Lab and the startups it nurtures grow as much through conversations as anything else.
One conversation might lead directly to investment, like when entrepreneur-mentor George Brown walked by 3-D printed shoemaker Feetz's workstation at last year's Gig Tank and asked Bradshaw, "Do you think they'd like to meet the former CEO of Reebok?" (Bradshaw said yes. They met. Now that CEO, Uli Becker, is a Feetz investor and board member.)
And sometimes those growth conversations are more open ended.
I spoke with Bradshaw, executive director of the Company Lab, and Alex Lavidge, Gig Tank 2015 director, just before Demo Day, which happened this week. With the fourth Gig Tank almost one for the books, what's on their minds is what comes next.
One recurring theme is how to build on Chattanooga's ultra-high-speed, low-latency gigabit network. That's no surprise, since that Gig in Gig Tank is the engine behind so much and this year's theme. The surprise is that bandwidth is not the only factor in what will make Chattanooga an attractive test kitchen.
"Yes, bandwidth matters: one gig, two gigs, three gigs," says Bradshaw. "What matters as much or more is that low latency is really an issue."
Think of bandwidth as the diameter of the pipe through which all that data flows like water. I assumed that more bandwidth simply means everything is faster. Not necessarily.
Receiving a really big file—maybe a set of MRI images of your heart that your cardiologist wants to see before surgery—is a one-way transaction. As long as you're just trying to shove a bowling ball down a garden hose, bigger is better when it comes to the diameter of the hose.
But what if you are going back and forth with whoever is on the other end of your Internet connection? In that case, a little delay every time could add up and make it impossible to collaborate.
"It doesn't matter how much bandwidth you put in there," Bradshaw says. "A packet-switched network by design is going to have latency in it additional to a point-to-point connection, because of the way it spreads packets around, which have to be assembled on the other end and then presented."
The current Internet is built on networking protocols that use a data transmission technique called packet switching. You may have heard that the Army invented the Internet so that its command-and-control communications could be safer from attack. That's what packet switching is about. Rather than an entire message going from point A to point B, a message is broken up into smaller packets that are sent in all different directions, together with instructions for reassembling themselves into the original message on the other end.
That works great for the kind of messages people were sending 20 years ago when the Internet went public, but not for what people are trying to do now.
Enter the GENI. Earlier this year, a node of GENI was installed at UT Chattanooga. It's part of a research network prototyping the next generation of Internet connectivity, using data protocols that bypass the problems with packet switching.
"GENI is running through 60 tier-1 research universities," says Bradshaw. "Now it's connected here in Chattanooga. We're the only one with a metro-wide fiber network that can handle that type of configuration."
Co.Lab, the Enterprise Center and the Public Education Foundation recently demonstrated precisely that at the STEM school. High school students operated an extremely sophisticated 4k microscope located in California in real time. What those students did has broader significance for industrial applications.
"It's portable across lots of different vertical interests: all of education, all collaborative working," says Bradshaw. "If you need to control a remote machine, it's facilitated by the methods we have here today."
There are also implications for many near-future technological developments.
"Self-driving cars are going to be here sooner than we realize," says Lavidge. "That's going to require a lot of bandwidth, a lot of low-latency interactions between cars and the web. In the healthcare space, data files for each patient are going to go from megabits to gigabits very soon."
He and Bradshaw both wonder out loud (but speculatively) about a future network of separate but mutually supportive industry-specific accelerators dedicated to health care, the auto industry and 3-D printing.
"There's a common information platform they all can exist on if it's higher bandwidth and lower latency," says Bradshaw. "Each one of these verticals is enhanced by the type of network we have here in Chattanooga."
"However the future shakes out, I tell people, 'If you are an investor or a company, you want to have that conversation about what it might look like at Co.Lab,’" says Lavidge. "If you want to be involved in that conversation, this is the really first stop."
Rich Bailey is a professional writer, editor and (sometimes) PR consultant. He led a project to create Chattanooga’s first civic web site in 1995 before even owning a modem. Now he covers Chattanooga technology for The Pulse and blogs about it at CircleChattanooga.com. He splits his time between Chattanooga and Brooklyn.